Go Nauru! (An American’s take on the Parade of Nations)
The London Olympics are fast approaching, and that made me think of this essay. I wrote it a number of years ago – but I think the sentiments are the same…
For my money, the greatest moments of any Olympics happen before the first shot has been put, the first dive drilled, or the first dismount stuck. I’m talking, of course, about the Opening Ceremonies – and specifically, the Parade of Nations. For about two hours (although it seems a lot longer to those who carp about it every four years), colorfully clad representatives of every nation on earth march together into one stadium, and are greeted by the roar of untold thousand voices simply because they exist, and they are together.
It’s a fantasy – we all know it. There are athletes standing next to each other in that stadium from countries sworn to destroy each other. As soon as the Games begin, nationalism, ignorance, and prejudice will shoulder themselves to the front of the line as they always do. When the Games begin, accusations will be hurled and festering hatreds will boil unchecked.
But not tonight. Not this night.
As an American, I find the Parade of Nations both poignant and curiously humbling. Watching it from my comfortable, gadget-saturated house in the most advanced country on earth is almost embarrassing. Burundi, for example, gets to me. It’s great to see Americans win medals – joy is joy, and infectious in any language. But all the same, I know our athletes are well-fed, well-funded, and often bolstered by legions of everything from nutritionists to sports psychologists to massage therapists. Do the Burundian (Burundese?) athletes have massage therapists? I’m guessing not, which makes their one Olympic medal (in Atlanta, 1996) all the more impressive.
Every four years, I realize anew how ignorant I am of global expansion. When I was in college 20-odd years ago, I took a class in World Geography from a notoriously crusty and much-loved professor. By the end of that course, by God, I could name every country on earth and its capital (including my all-time favorite, Ouagadougou – look it up). Today, I realize, I wouldn’t make it past the mid-term.
What is Barbuda, and when did Antigua adopt it? Comoros? Never heard of it. Kiribati? Not ringing a bell. São Tomé and Principe? I think someone just made that one up. And when did Guinea start procreating? Now we’ve got plain old Guinea, Papua New Guinea, Equatorial Guinea and Guinea-Brissau. We make so much of the birth of our nation here in America, yet there is a veritable nursery full of nations that have been born in recent decades, and somehow I never heard a word.
Of all the young and unsung nations I encountered during this year’s Parade of Nations, however, none affected me as much as Nauru. Here was the proud Nauruan (Nauruese?) delegation – all three of them, I think – striding into the Olympic stadium behind their beloved Nauru flag, their one athlete surely as excited and overwhelmed as our own poster boy Michael Phelps, and I didn’t even know what continent the country was in. When I looked it up, I found myself wishing with all my heart that Nauru had a ringer – a come-from-behind, who-is-this-guy upstart who would win the 100-meter dash and show our coddled American darlings what was what.
Nauru is the smallest independent republic in the world. You could fit its total population into your average football stadium in the States and probably have room left over for São Tomé and Principe. Nauru’s main source of revenue is bird guano – and they’re running out of that. It’s the only nation on earth that doesn’t even have a capital city. God, I want them to win something.
When we talk about the Olympic spirit, we usually mean it in an individual context – Kerri Strug vaulting on an injured ankle, Jesse Owens and Ludwig “Luz” Long forging an unlikely friendship in Berlin, Al Oerter winning gold in 4 consecutive Olympics and continuing to compete far beyond that. But to me, the Olympic spirit is best embodied by the Parade of Nations – that one magic night when the biggest cheers are reserved for the smallest nations, the understudies on the world stage, the ones who work hard, show up, and hope for a miracle. Will they win medals, these under-funded, unknown underdogs? For most of them, the answer is probably not (although in the case of Nauru, I have high hopes – any nation that can found itself on guano is a force to be reckoned with.)
So okay, most of the lesser-known players will go home without hardware. But on Parade of Nations night, they’re there.
They’re there together, and I’m glad.